There are eight official islands of Hawaii: Niihau, Kauai, Oahu, Maui, Molokai, Lanai, Kahoolawe, and Big Island. However, only Kauai, Oahu, Maui, Molokai, Lanai, and Big Island are really accessible. Whatever your travel style is, however, you’ll find it fits among at least one of these.
I recently spent three weeks exploring the islands, and found myself really pressed for time. That’s why I think a handy guide like this is essential: if I had my time back, I’d chose an island like Kauai over Oahu, and I’d give myself much more time on Big Island. With the right legwork, you can easily learn how to make the most of your time on the islands. Hawaii is the kind of place that’s so beautiful, you might find yourself questioning the true meaning of life.
And if you’d like to make things even EASIER, why not hire a local Hawaiian guide? In many cases, a Hawaii volcano tour is the only way to see active lava, and being guided by a local means you’re also introduced to a little bit of traditional culture.
So without further ado, here are the main islands.
Oahu is the mother of all islands, and it’s usually the one that most tourists fly into. It’s home to Hawaii’s capital city, Honolulu, and its massive military base. About 1.4 million people live in Hawaii, and nearly a million of those people live on Oahu. That should put things in context for you.
Oahu is VERY much catered to tourists. Most people chose to stay in the downtown core, either in Honolulu or along Waikiki beach. This whole area is entirely built for travellers: it’s insanely busy, all the major tours leave from here, and you’ll find just about any chain store/restaurant your heart desires along the main stretch. To me, it was my least favourite island. To others, it’s tourist bliss. I do admit it was quite convenient to be right in the heart of it all.
Oahu is also very expensive. Dining and accommodations aren’t cheap. You’d have more luck if you were staying outside the main drag, like around the North Shore (where all the notorious surfers and stand-up paddle boarders come to hang out).
Some attractions worth checking out: the hike to Diamond Head crater, the Dole Plantation (fresh pineapples!), the USS Arizona Memorial at the Pearl Harbor site, snorkelling at Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve, Kailua Beach Park, Koko Crater Trail (a BRUTAL hike – make sure you’re in peak physical shape before hitting this one!), Makapuu Lighthouse Trail, and the very somber National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.
In short, Oahu is great for travelling families, couples, honeymooners, party animals, food lovers, surfers, and those not following a strict budget.
Maui is the second most touristy of the islands, but you don’t have to go far to find silence and reprieve. Maui has some big nature, and it tends to be a favourite among many travellers thanks to its fine beaches, jaw-dropping coastline, and happy-go-lucky island atmosphere. It’s also much cheaper than Oahu!
Maui is yours for the taking. Whether you want to sit around on warm beaches all day, or do some epic adventure activities, you don’t have to go far to make it happen. Some of my happiest days in Maui included just loading up a cooler of beer and heading to a beach with a few new friends, soaking up the sun and then watching it set. The sunsets in Maui are spectacular.
There are two particular must-dos while in Maui: first, you must drive the Road to Hana. It’s a series of over 500 hairpin turns and switchbacks along the coast, and it’s one of the most thrilling and most beautiful things you’ll do your whole time in Hawaii. The road gets so narrow at times you’ll wonder how it’s even possible to squeeze past other vehicles. Get a Jeep. Take the top off. You’ll eventually come to Hana, but you’ll pass the Seven Sacred Pools as well. Those are worth checking out.
The other thing you must do is visit Haleakala National Park. It’s home to one of the world’s largest dormant volcanoes, and the view from the top is something special… especially at sunset. There are limitless hikes around here as well. My friends and I opted for the 12-mile one that nearly killed us, but it was worth it.
Other attractions in Maui: Ho’okipa Beach Park, snorkeling at Lahaina Beach, Iao Valley State Park, and Big Beach and Little Beach. Little Beach is a nude beach, and every Sunday you’ll find a really fun hippie drum circle here as the sun sets.
Maui is great for adventurers, families, singles, honeymooners, solo travellers, and beach goers.
Lanai might be the most remote of the Hawaiian islands. It’s also the smallest, but it once was the biggest supplier of the world’s pineapples. There’s not a single traffic light here, but that’s how people love it.
Yet, Lanai has some of the most luxurious resorts in Hawaii, with world-class amenities and some pretty impressive golf courses. But then there’s the adventurous side of Lanai: you can explore the back-rounds of the rugged countryside in a 4×4, or get off the beaten path to places like the Garden of the Gods. Believe it or not, only 30 miles of Lanai’s roads are paved.
Lanai attractions include: Golf courses like The Challenge and The Experience, Polihua Beach, Munro Trail, and dolphin sightseeing at Hulopoe Bay. This island is most ideal for big spenders, vacationers, adventurers, backpackers, and families.
It might be obvious from its name, but Big Island (officially “Hawaii”) is the biggest of all the islands! And it’s not meant to be underestimated. This was my downfall on Big Island: I completely misjudged the size of it, and gave myself very little time to enjoy all of its attractions. There are many!
Big Island epitomizes what Hawaii is all about. You get a certain sense of a connection with nature here, and the local Hawaiians are big on it. The pace of life is slow – so slow, in fact, that public transit is hardly reliable and the best way to get around is with a rental car. There are two sides to Big Island: the Hilo side, and the Kona side. Kona is where you’ll find most of the fancy resorts and nice beaches; Hilo is more a local, hippie, small-town kind of vibe. It’s also the launching point to exploring Volcanoes National Park and its unbelievably active Kilauea Crater.
Other awesome attractions on Big Island: the observatories at Mauna Kea, watching the sunset (and star-gazing) atop Mauna Kea, cruising Waipi’o Valley, snorkelling at Kealakekua Bay, relaxing at Hapuna Beach, the Hilo’s Farmers Market, and Akaka Falls State Park. Big Island is definitely all about big nature.
Big Island is best for adventurers, couples, solo travellers, singles, and backpackers.
Molokai is Hawaii’s cultural centre, and more than 50% of the people living here have indigenous heritage. That’s a significant number because indigenous heritage is quickly (and sadly) dwindling in Hawaii. Because of this, Molokai takes a firm stance against allowing the island to become overrun with tourists. In other words, it’s likely the most authentically Hawaiian island there is.
Molokai is remote, and fiercely defended by the locals. It’s the kind of place you want to visit when escaping from the real world. Its top attractions include: Halawa Valley, Kalaupapa National Historical Park, and Papohaku Beach.
Molokai is best for budget travellers, adventurers, hikers, and culture vultures.
Kauai is where everyone comes to surf, hang out on beaches, hike, camp, and relax. It’s extremely remote, and the only towns you’ll find here are small villages. Most people come here to hike the Napali Coast – a multi-day hike that’ll take you deep into Kauai’s interior.
Getting around can be difficult without having a rental car, so consider that as your best option. Kauai’s other awesome attractions include Wailua River, Waimea Canyon, Poipu Beach, Old Koala Town, many native fishponds, and more. You can also opt for a guided Hawaii hiking trekking tour here.
Kauai is the best destination for adventurers, hikers, kayakers, backpackers, couples, singles, and those just looking to get off the grid.
Which island is your favourite?